Harrisburg’s housing court to target codes violators

Harrisburg has unveiled its latest weapon against the city’s war on blight.

For the first time, Mayor Eric Papenfuse said codes offenders will be funneled through Housing Court.

Take a walk in just about any Harrisburg neighborhood, and you will at least see trash lining the curbs. Pass through areas like Hummel Street, Crescent Street and Curtin Street, and you’re more likely to see mattresses, couches, and yes – even the kitchen sink strewn array.

In the city’s on-going war on blight, it comes down to an arms race. By many of these examples, city government is lagging. However, on Wednesday, Papenfuse unveiled judicial firepower to combat frequent city codes offenders.

“We’re going to make sure that nobody wants to go to the Housing Court,” he said emphatically.

Although the city attempted a housing court earlier this millennium, Papenfuse said this will be the first of its kind to actually work. He explained that all non-traffic codes related offenses will be processed through one housing court overseen by two Dauphin County district judges.

City Codes Director Dave Patton said this is a long-time coming for him and his department.

“We think with this structure, we’re going to get consistency, fairness and accountability,” Patton said. “I think it’ll lend to the complexion of the city. Obviously, this is a real shot of morale in the arm for my staff.”

Patton said he has long battled a backlog in the justice system. Currently, the sum of codes fines handing in the courts’ balance equal about a million dollars. In a fiscally recovering city like Harrisburg, every cent counts.

Patton said there have been 67 city codes cases to date in 2012. He said there were 167 last year and 497 in 2012. He explained those cases were spread across Harrisburg’s five district judges, which created an “uneven and chaotic” system that Patton said often resulted in inconsistent verdicts or unresolved cases.

Starting on May 5, the mayor said Judge David Judy and Judge Rebecca Margerum, whose offices are located outside city limits, will begin the housing court. The judges will utilize the night court courtroom on Mall Boulevard during regular business hours, at no additional cost to the city.

Patton and Papenfuse said this will streamline all cases to one office, one location, and offer one focus.

“All of that time saved will allow them to be doing more inspections, issuing more citations and getting more done,” said Papenfuse.

After meeting with city officials from Lebanon and Lancaster, Papenfuse said they were interested to create a housing court of their own.

The mayor also said the addition of the new program had nothing to do with the arrest of Bishop A.E. Sullivan, owner of the crumbling church on Magnolia Street.

Former Mayor Linda Thompson often threatened to erect a ‘Wall of Shame’ for slum landlords and codes offenders. Papenfuse said he will not use shame as a deterrent.

However, he believes the efficiency and effectiveness of the housing court will work as the best deterrent for cereal codes violators.

“Nobody is going to want to go to housing court,” said Papenfuse. “Nobody is going to want those stiffer, more consistent sentences.”

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